Picture: BBC News/Ira Block/National Geographic
Archaeologists digging at Buddha's birthplace have uncovered remains of the earliest ever "Buddhist shrine".
They unearthed a 6th Century BC timber structure buried within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini in Nepal.
The shrine appears to have housed a tree. This links to the Buddha nativity story - his mother gave birth to him while holding on to a tree branch.
Its discovery may settle the dispute over the birth date of the Buddha, they report in the journal Antiquity.
Every year thousands of Buddhists make a holy pilgrimage to Lumbini - long identified as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha.
Yet despite the many texts chronicling his life and teachings, it is still uncertain when he lived.
Estimates for his birth stretch as far back as 623 BC, but many scholars believed 390-340 BC a more realistic timeframe.
Until now, the earliest evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the 3rd Century BC, in the era of the emperor Ashoka.
To investigate, archaeologists began excavating at the heart of the temple - alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.
They unearthed a wooden structure with a central void which had no roof. Brick temples built later above the timber were also arranged around this central space.
To date the buildings, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques.
"Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the 6th century BC," said archaeologist Prof Robin Coningham of Durham UniversityFull Story: Earliest 'shrine' uncovered at Buddha's birthplace